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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Expert Opinion is Unified Against Gas Chambers

Right now several states still have gas chambers in active use in animal shelters. Reformers are working hard in those states to get gas chambers banned, but they are running into local resistance in many places. It is puzzling that there is still any opposition to getting rid of gas chambers, because all of the leading national organizations that have weighed in on the issue say that euthanasia by injection (EBI) is the preferred method of euthanasia for shelter dogs and cats.

The textbook “Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff” notes that the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, ASPCA, HSUS, and the American Humane Association (AHA) “all recommend EBI of sodium pentobarbital as the only acceptable method for euthanasia of dogs and cats in animal shelters.” The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in its 2013 Euthanasia Guidelines, says that “the preferred method of euthanasia” in animal shelters is EBI. The Euthanasia Reference Manual published by HSUS states that EBI is the best of the available euthanasia methods for shelter animals, and lists gas chambers among the methods that “are not considered to be humane euthanasia, and should never be permitted in a shelter setting.” The National Animal Control Association states that EBI using sodium pentobarbital is the “only method of choice” for humane euthanasia of shelter dogs and cats, and it “condemns”  the use of gas chambers.

The people who want to continue using gas chambers in shelters generally rely on three arguments. None of those arguments stand up to scrutiny and none of them are accepted by experts in the field.

The first argument is that gas chambers are safer for the humans involved when they are dealing with aggressive or feral animals. This argument seems plausible at first glance because people tend to think of EBI as requiring handling of the animal, while the gas chamber just requires pushing a button. But what this argument ignores is that the technician has to handle the animal to get it into the gas chamber in the first place. EBI is actually safer than the gas chamber for the technicians because a press gate or squeeze cage can be used to restrain an animal for the few seconds required to give a pre-euthanasia sedative. The restraint technique is used in TNR to get feral cats ready for surgery, and it is both safe for the technicians and as humane as possible for the cats. Anyone who has seen experienced people preparing feral cats for surgery will realize how much more humane the restraint-sedation technique is than stuffing a fully conscious, struggling, terrified animal into a gas chamber.

And speaking of danger to the human technicians, gas chambers are dangerous things to have in any building. The “Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff” textbook notes that carbon monoxide exposure has been documented in the death of one shelter worker and the illness of another. Gas chambers that leak low levels of carbon monoxide can cause serious health problems in shelter personnel. There is no way to tell if a chamber is leaking without monitoring it, because the gas has no smell or taste. And handling the gas is dangerous because it is explosive.

The second argument made by those who want to keep using gas chambers is that EBI is more expensive. This argument is factually incorrect. AHA did a study of costs of EBI versus gas chambers and found that EBI is cheaper – far cheaper, in fact. The 2009 study found a cost of $4.66 per animal for the gas chamber versus $2.29 for EBI. Sodium pentobarbital is a controlled substance, but the majority of states allow direct registration for animal shelters to obtain the drug. Concern about the ability of shelters to get sodium pentobarbital without having to go through a veterinarian should never be a barrier to banning gas chambers, because if a state lacks direct registration it could be instituted at the same time as the ban on gas chambers.

The third argument made by people who want to keep the gas chamber is that a gas chamber is emotionally easier on shelter personnel because they do not have to look at and touch the animal as it dies. Again, the experts in the field do not agree with this reasoning. Many studies have found that performing euthanasia is stressful for shelter workers regardless of the method used. The key is how workers deal with the stress. If they distance themselves from their emotions by distancing themselves from the animal’s death, it is harder on them in the long run. Being able to feel the sadness and tragedy of an animal’s death is actually a sign that a shelter worker is coping with his or her emotions in a healthy way rather than ignoring them or shutting them off.

I suspect that what is really occurring with resistance to getting rid of gas chambers is just resistance to change, and a desire not to have to go through the learning curve of adopting a new method. Those concerns should not stand in the way of banning gas chambers. When every national organization with expertise on the issue, including the AVMA, has expressed the clear opinion that EBI is superior to the gas chamber in all respects, that should be the end of the debate.


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